Dust and Ash: Reflections on Terry Jones’ “Trial” of the Koran

Image Taken from the HuffPost. (Links below.)


I can imagine the dust—both the desert dust and the ash of the burned book.

The Bible says that God made us from dust; recently the church calendar celebrated a day of dust—Ash Wednesday—in which we were reminded of the transience of life by the smearing of oil, water, and ash on our foreheads. The liturgy in my tradition tells us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

But instead of following in the footsteps of Jesus, giving up something for Lent in a symbol of solidarity with Christ’s temptation in the desert, Florida pastor Terry Jones and his congregation held a trial. A trial for the Koran. In the end, they deemed it “guilty,” and burned it.

In a piece I posted a few weeks ago, I reflected on my time abroad and shared a few stories of my experiences as an American in a foreign country. I titled it: “More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters.” It didn’t garner many readers or spur any sort of discussion, but in light of recent events, perhaps it will now.

My closing statements used Terry Jones as an example, warning that the world takes notice when America makes threats to burn holy books or, as in the case of Peter King, put a faith group on trial. If we are to diffuse the hate and negative reputation that follows the US as a bigoted and hypocritical country, then we have to saturate the discussion with stories of cooperation and peace. The world watches us. They hear us. And now that Jones has in fact burned a Koran (and others did in fact take notice)—with the result that 12 people are now dead—I think the discussion becomes evermore pertinent.

We are now on day four of the violent protests. Since I began this piece on Saturday, the death toll has climbed to over 20 people and counting, and 80 have been injured as the protests have turned to riots.

There is in this situation a tendency to point at the Afghan Muslims as fulfilling Jones’ perceptions of them as being violent, rash, and hateful toward the US. However, I would say that this characterization of Islam is unfair; it’s the equivalent of shoving someone on the playground and then being surprised when they retaliate.

Make no mistake, I am in no way saying that these Afghan’s actions were justified—they certainly were not. Nothing can justify what they did, not even the burning of a sacred object. To argue that somehow the Afghans were right to act out would be to say that human life is less sacred that wood pulp and ink, and that is simply false.

But it does give one pause.

The political situation in Afghanistan toward the United States was tenuous at best before Jones started advertising his “Burn the Koran Day,” and now by actually following through on his threats he has sent a very dangerous signal to the Afghan Muslims that has the potential to paint the “War on Terror” as a holy war. And all of this elevated tension comes just as we start withdrawing our troops.

The actions on both sides speak to severe dysfunction. Both parties highlight the need for dialogue and understanding. If Terry Jones and his congregation actually knew anything about Islam, then they wouldn’t have entertained the idea of burning a Koran. And likewise, if the Afghan Muslims knew that the vast majority of Christians in the US condemned Jones’  actions, perhaps they wouldn’t allow their anger to lead to murder.

Most disappointingly, the Christian community has largely balked at any sort of response (probably because there is no unified Christian community to issue one), and seems awkwardly silent in the wake of such a terrible tragedy. The statements coming from Jones’ church are calloused, insensitive, and woefully unapologetic. They just don’t seem to get it. What they did cost people their lives, and continues to perpetuate harmful relations between the Christian and Muslim communities.

I will repeat it again: interfaith cooperation in America matters. We need to set the example. Otherwise, the voice of intolerance and hate rings louder than the voice of peace.

For more information on this story, follow these links: CNN, HuffPost.

The Kingdom and the Interfaith Movement

This really has nothing to do with Mickey Mouse - I promise.


As a Christian, I think that the Kingdom of God has something to do with the interfaith movement.

Okay, let me explain:

I talk to (well, okay… I really hear about much more than I actually talk to) many Christians who aren’t interested in the interfaith movement because of two primary reasons:

1. Fear that participation in the interfaith movement represents a condoning of spiritual practices and/or theological systems that are inconsistent with the Bible

– AND –

2. A lack of appeal, as the interfaith movement doesn’t set an obvious place for a traditional notion of evangelism

Now, reason 1 is easy to address– we simply need more Christians who have actually given the interfaith movement a chance and who understand and practice a model for interfaith cooperation that does not blur the lines between faith traditions and does not require you to state that you’re a-okay with anyone and everyone believing anything and everything they want to believe.

Reason 2, on the other hand, is trickier.  And as we’ve been gnawing away at reason 2 for a few months here at FLP, I’ve started to discover something: the Kingdom of God has something to do with the interfaith movement.

But what?

First, let me be up-front with what I am not saying.  The Bible does not paint a picture of a society in which people of different faith and philosophical traditions work together to make the world a better place and then call it “God’s Dream Society On Earth.”  If I were saying this, I would be fabricating a faith tradition that wasn’t Biblical, and I would have created a cheap derivative of Christianity.

So here’s what I am saying: the Bible, more specifically the New Testament–and even more specifically, the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)– do start to paint a picture of what we might call “God’s Dream Society On Earth.”  And it’s called the Kingdom of God…but it’s not the interfaith movement.

Yet there’s a connection here:  Jesus preached the gospel, which is not to be confused with the gospels, the written accounts of Jesus life, death, and resurrection (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).  “Gospel,” translated from the Greek euangelion , also the source of the English word “evangelism,” means “good news.”  And Jesus preached it.

Jesus preached the gospel, which is to say the he preached the good news, and this good news was about something – it was about the Kingdom of God.

So Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.

And now, I have something to argue with my faith tradition: what are WE preaching?

Are we preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God?  Or are we preaching something else – an incomplete gospel, or a misguided gospel, or a mistaken gospel?

You see, I think that the failure to see an opportunity to be evangelical (i.e. telling the good news) in the interfaith movement reflects a failure to preach the gospel that Jesus was preaching, as well as a failure to see the gospel that Jesus was preaching.

Scot McKnight says in his book One.Life: “After years of speaking at churches and teaching classes, I’m convinced the average person doesn’t know what Jesus meant when he used the word kingdom.”

And Scot later continues to put it plainly (and in a way we can all understand):

“By kingdom, Jesus means: God’s Dream Society on earth

A comment on one of our recent posts said “nobody has a monopoly on the proper method of evangelism.”  I agree.  But I’m also convinced that if the “good news” our evangelism is preaching is only the “accept Christ to avoid hell, and then lead a pious life” track, then we are missing a crucial part of the story.  The Kingdom of God is something bigger.

So what is the Kingdom of God?  This piece is meant to be a teaser – because I think the only way to really understand the Kingdom of God is to return to the source through which it is communicated – the Bible.  So, here’s an invitation: join me in a little journey as I go back through the gospels over the next several weeks for a look at exactly what Jesus’ Kingdom of God message is all about.  Until then, I leave you with something to think about:

I believe our job as Christians is to communicate the good news of the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus did.  And what were some of the primary techniques Jesus used?  Storytelling and service.

These are precisely the tools of the interfaith movement.  The interfaith movement invites us to come to the conversation to serve others and to tell stories, and to do that service and tell those stories in context of relationships with people of other faith traditions.

Does anyone see where this is going?

Dialogue or Debate?

Last spring, there was a public conversation between atheist John Loftus and Christian Dinesh D’Souza on my campus.  It was well-publicized and well-attended – packing the 1,936 seat auditorium with an audience from all walks of life.

Such a buzz, however, produced little.  It took the form of a debate: a minister-turned-atheist who attempted to use his vast education in the Christian tradition to legitimize his conclusions about the nonexistence of God and an academic Christian who presented his faith with an air of intelligence and logic.

Their banter got my thoughts churning about why I believe what I believe, but I walked out of the auditorium the same person I was when I entered – although perhaps a little more frustrated.  And at many points during the debate, especially when their exchange began to seep into ad hominem attacks instead of formal debate, I wondered what the hundreds of students here were hoping to accomplish by attending.

Interfaith work, rooted in respectful dialogue, presents a different kind of conversation about religion.  My friend Chris Stedman, a secular humanist, once said:

“This is the difference between dialogue and debate: debate is sharing in hopes of convincing; dialogue is sharing and listening in hopes of increasing understanding. In my opinion, we need more of the latter and less of the former.”

I agree with Chris.  And here’s why: history has shown us that little is accomplished in debate.  I’m willing to bet both sides of the issue, especially when that issue is the existence of God, walk out of the room more frustrated and annoyed than enlightened.  Dialogue, however, has the potential to inspire, build understanding, and develop relationships.

But let’s step back for a moment.  As an evangelical, I believe that the world needs to hear the message that my faith teaches.  I believe that it’s something of eternal consequence, and I believe that the loving approach to my neighbor is to communicate that message to them.  So when it comes to a choice between debate with the hope of convincing, and dialogue with the hope of increasing understanding, which do I choose?

For some time I would have chosen debate.  Naturally, an issue of eternal consequence carries a sense of urgency.  But since I began doing interfaith work, I have come to question the effectiveness of debate.  And I’ve heard it said that it is a symptom of insecurity that I’m not interested in arguing my faith’s validity against its greatest critics.  So is it a cop-out?

No, I choose dialogue because of my security in my faith.  I choose dialogue because it is an ally more powerful the soundest argument.  I choose dialogue because Jesus spread a message of love through listening, serving, and telling stories, not attacking, condemning or criticizing.  I choose dialogue because I believe that Jesus is the Truth and that understanding the truth is more powerful than being persuaded of it.

I have found that being a Christian in interfaith work does not mean putting evangelism on hold–no, it means understanding better what evangelism is all about, and taking the message of Jesus Christ to a table where ears are open and lives can be changed.

“Open Letter to Greg Damhorst and Cameron Nations”: A Response

A few weeks ago, Frank Turk, a blogger for PyroManiacs (teampyro.blogspot.com), wrote an open letter to our friend Chris Stedman. We wrote Frank a response, and in return he responded to us. (You can read his letter to Greg and me here.) This is our reply. (Warning: it’s a long one.)


I want to begin by thanking you for your thorough response; the time and effort required to pen nine pages of anything is not insignificant—so, again, thanks.

In this letter I hope to principally address the three points you brought up in your comment, as I agree that they are the most pertinent and worthy of discussion (and, discussion is, after all, what we both advocate). I would like to begin, however, with the observation that you appear to view Greg and I as interfaith activists first, Christians second. This is not how we view ourselves, and I would encourage you not to view us in this way, either. When considering what I have to say, I hope that you bear this in mind, viewing me as someone with whom you disagree, but who is ultimately on your side, rather than someone standing in direct opposition to you.

Neither Greg nor I meant to imply that you are not a “leading voice” by saying that Chris is one. We simply used the verb “target” to describe your open letter. And while this may not have been the most sensitive word choice, it does in fact describe what your letter did. Any letter—open or not—is directed at a particular person. We saw your letter as an attack on our friend, and thus reacted the way we did. If it portrayed you wrongly, then I apologize.

I will further apologize for what you feel was a “Reader’s Digest version” of your open letter. However, I will also say that copy-and-pasting Chris’s HuffPost bio and then giving a few lines of commentary on atheism in general does not constitute devoting gracious amounts of space to Chris’s own words on interfaith cooperation. Instead it only provides a list of his accomplishments and then a bit of opinion. Our summary of your letter was only intended to provide a bit of context for those who had not yet read it (which they could easily do for themselves, as we provided the link for them), and its brevity was an attempt at saving space. Again, we had no intention of misrepresenting your points.

As for misinterpreting your statements and the tone behind them, I would say that this is a function of your writing—you do, whether you intend this or not, write with a bit of a bite. Sometimes your statements, when read by someone who has never heard you speak or is not used to your blogs, come off as snarky and aggressive. A bit of cheek isn’t a bad thing (and in quite a few of your posts is rather entertaining), but I will say that it certainly contributed to my reading of your letter to Chris, and potentially distorted what you actually were saying. Our letter in defense of Chris may not have been a paragon of open-letter responses, but Greg and I still think it addressed the issues you raised in a manner not that different from your own.

You accused us of misrepresenting you—of “demonizing” you— and yet you grossly misrepresented our own views at a few points in your response, making us out to be the bad guys in need of repentance. I would say that this tactic resembles the very thing you criticized us for doing. By telling you a bit of Faith Line Protestants’ story, as well as addressing a few of your statements, I hope I can clear up any false impressions and better articulate our own position. I will go about this as well as I can by category, examining those things which I feel have caused the greatest breakdown in understanding. (Because whatever your beef with our letter in defense of Chris, the real issue here lies in your assumptions regarding our faith, our approach to evangelism, and the efficacy of interfaith work. What we said in Chris’s letter is done.)

But before I really get going, I wish to address one of your statements that irked me on a personal level. It comes at the end of your paragraph in which you attribute our response to hubris and collegiate spirit, and assert that we must have only skimmed your letter before penning our response to it: “I like to call it the surprise in the Cracker Jack box which is my faith and mission as a blogger: surprising people with the idea that there are really folks who have walked the field of faithlessness and come out the other end with a different conclusion. But I say that only to say this: if there were actually any discussion going on, you’d probably have discovered that.” I actually did know of your former atheism—I read it in the comments at the bottom of the open letter. Moreover, I spent quite a few hours combing through your old posts, looking at other blogs to which you have contributed, etc. before even considering a response. I did this because I did not think it fair to write something addressing you when I didn’t know much about you and what you stood for. I never “took it for granted that [you were] one kind of person,” as you state. People’s lives and stories are much more complex than that.

For example, I too have a “surprise in the Cracker Jack box”—I walked away from my faith as well upon entering university, only to return to it less than a year ago. I feel this shared experience (not all that uncommon) is something that perhaps we can build from—it was a terribly dark time for me, and one that has had a profound impact on my drive to do interfaith work. Just like your time as an atheist has shaped you and what you hope to accomplish, so have my own struggles with my faith driven me in mine.

Now, back to your three points…

I find it interesting that you repeatedly refer to our participation in interfaith work as not compelling when you devoted 9 pages in response to it. That is perhaps a cheap shot, so I’ll ask you a genuine question. You claim what Greg and I are doing isn’t “new,” as if age possesses some sort of truth value. You even go so far as to say that this is a “problem” (something I will discuss in greater depth later on). What do you mean by this? Below are two points where you have posed this critique of our work, along with my response to them.

You say:

I cannot pretend that your version of what you say you mean to do is better than what has come before it. At least the old main-line Liberal approach stood in the Sermon on the Mount and in Leviticus and looked for the longest possible list of good works to produce rather than to a reductive consensus which everyone can agree on. Your version compared to your intellectual fathers is not even compelling in terms of what it is seeking to accomplish.

And at a different point:

Your idea isn’t new, and it isnt half as compelling as the liberal Christian activism that came before it — except that it doesn’t really believe that a Christian moral foundation is needed to act on it.

First off, I would like to point out that our position does in fact look to a Christian moral foundation for its basis. One can see this stated quite plainly all over our site. Greg and I look to the early church, to Paul’s ministry, and to the teachings of Jesus himself for guidance, direction, and inspiration. Greg and I often quote the Beatitudes in our posts; I don’t know where you find the grounds to make the claim that we don’t appeal to scripture when we quite obviously do so in almost everything we write. And who are these “intellectual fathers” you mention? Do you mean people like Schleiermacher and Tillich (as you keep positioning us as some sort of Christian Liberalism Lite), or are you fishing elsewhere? I’m not ignorant of the traditions that have shaped the interfaith movement or my place in it, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at there.

Point is this—I do not think Greg and I seek “a reductive consensus which everyone can agree on.” We do not advocate for that. Yes, we do seek to bring people of different traditions together around the shared value of service, but that is hardly a reductive consensus. Off of what are you basing your opinion? It feels like you are treating our view as a proposed systematic approach to the Christian faith, which is not what we are doing or what we purport to do.

When Greg and I sat down for coffee and hatched the plans for Faith Line Protestants, we both came from prominent roles in a large Christian organization on campus— the University of Illinois chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. During his time as an undergrad, Greg led small groups, and I myself still serve by leading worship and doing creative planning. Though we both love Intervarsity as an organization, we noticed a kind of insularity plaguing not only IV, but also the other prominent Christian organizations on campus as well. We saw a reluctance to engage with people of other backgrounds in service, despite the fact that Intervarsity leads some of the best service trips (such as the Chicago Urban Project) of any U of I Christian organization. We felt that interfaith service seemed a natural fit for a group that already engaged in numerous projects throughout the local community and beyond.

Greg and I, as participants in both Interfaith and Intervarsity, saw that the conversation surrounding interfaith cooperation was already happening, but that Christians weren’t participating in it. At interfaith event after interfaith event, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and even atheists turned up in droves, while Christians did not. This troubled us, not least because Christians form the majority faith group in this country and on campus. And by not participating, we send signals of disinterest that reflect poorly on Christians as a faith community. If Jews and Hindus and Muslims are willing to come together to solve problems in the community, but Christians are not, then how does that make us look? Sure, we may be doing service projects on our own, but we still come across as insular and unwilling to engage with those different from us—two stereotypes that I don’t think are healthy for the church going forward, especially on university campuses.

But Greg and I were optimistic. We believed that Christians, because of Christ’s call to service and love, would be willing and eager to participate if they only knew more about interfaith itself—that it isn’t advocating a theological pluralism, that it doesn’t violate any part of our beliefs, and that it actually is a great way to show, if you will, what the Christian community is made of.

We were familiar with Chris Stedman and his work attempting to bring the atheist community into better relationships with religious groups, and we sought a Christian resource that did something similar… only, we couldn’t find one. The “interfaith question” seemed to be one that the church wasn’t asking, but that Greg and I felt should be addressed. We figured we might as well start the discussion. We’re not launching some sort of theological movement that we misguidedly believe to be novel, but rather operate out of existing values within the church to pose questions and seek answers.

Evangelism in its current and popular iterations does not address the specific parameters of interfaith relationships—relationships where you really can’t adopt the usual tactics of telling others about Jesus and then expecting a conversion at the end. It fails to negotiate what happens when the person on the other side of the table holds deep beliefs of their own, and who is not looking for an alternative.

I do not mean to say, however, that you can’t share your story/testimony with someone of another belief. On the contrary, much of our interfaith work revolves around sharing stories of faith and its impact on a person’s life. Greg and I actually see interfaith as a unique and thrilling opportunity to show others who would ordinarily maintain a distance from the Christian community what it means to believe in Christ. To us, leading by example in love and compassion speaks much louder than an outreach event or handing out Bible verses on the quad.

We’re young. We’re perhaps not the best equipped for this. But we aren’t going about things blindly. Before we began our site, we met with pastors to consult with them about our ideas. We had them read over our belief statements (all of the tabs at the top of our site) and they helped us craft them. These pastors and church leaders continue to read our blog, ready to call us out if we ever say something unintentionally out of line.

Greg and I wish to increase Christians’ involvement in interfaith cooperation because we want others to be exposed to the love of Christ. Yet you seem to see us differently. You say:

And this, really, lies as the foundation of all your other problems. You self-identify with “Evangelicalism” and call yourselves “Evangelicals”, but you are no such thing. An “evangelical” thinks proclaiming the Gospel is of the highest priority; you think it is a hopeful secondary objective. An “Evangelical” has a high regard for inerrancy and Biblical authority; you believe that the Bible’s authority is as one source of information in the secular context. An “Evangelical” thinks that teaching what the death and resurrection of Jesus means is a key emphasis; for you, it hasn’t yet come up – and can’t, because it will offend the personal ethics of those you would have to tell it to. You assume they have heard it and that is enough. Finally, an “Evangelical” places the conversion of others to being followers of Christ – not just admirers or glib flatterers of Christ – as the key objective of the Christian faith; for you, playing well with others is the key objective, and if that objective means they don’t hear the Gospel or respond to it, there’s always tomorrow.

Frankly, the last few sentences of the above paragraph are false; you have made assumptions that echo the very same reductive descriptions you criticized Greg and I for making. The implications/meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ undergirds FLP’s very existence, and we do not shy from it simply because it may offend someone else. It’s not the message itself that we find offensive, but the way in which the church can sometimes present it. Moreover, we do not assume that “they have heard it and that is enough.” You have taken what we said about Chris and erroneously extrapolated it onto our entire ethos. We know Chris has heard the gospel and knows it well. What more can we do then but allow him to make his own decisions? If there are those who have not heard about Christ or the gospel message, Greg and I do not take the approach you attribute to us—that we feel “there’s always tomorrow” for someone to hear it. We have not stated such a position anywhere, either in the letter regarding Chris or in the material found on our site. Your assumptions egregiously miscast what Greg and I aim to do. In a way, your critique once again treats us as if we espouse or posit some sort of systematic theology, one in which we only vaunt “playing well with others” as the chief aim of the Christian individual. Though we make seek peace over strife, I wouldn’t say that this comes at the expense of our beliefs or the strength of our faith.

I ask you to consider the following statements, which come straight off of our website:

-We believe in the Bible as the central and holy text of the Christian faith that it is a vehicle through which God conveys truth, and that it is the authority on matters of morality.  We maintain that God created the universe–including human beings, which he made in his image, rendering each person inherently valuable.

-We believe that Jesus, whose life is described in the New Testament of the Bible, was both human and divine, and that his crucifixion on earth was a sacrifice for the punishment that all human beings would otherwise pay for falling short of God’s standard (a concept called sin). Consequently, we believe that faith in Jesus’ sacrifice is the only way to both live life to its fullest on earth and be granted life forever with God in heaven.  We believe that Jesus will also be returning to earth to judge the humankind on the existence or absence of this faith.

-We believe that Jesus’ life and actions are an example for the way that we should live, and that all Christians form a global community (the body of Christ) that God often uses to interact with the world.  Finally, we believe that God communicates in many ways with believers through the Holy Spirit, a part of the Triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) as expressed in the foundational creeds of the church.

This—our belief statement—is displayed prominently in a tab at the top of our homepage, and includes both the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds. Did you even read it? If you had done, I don’t see how you could have levied any of the criticisms that called into question our beliefs about the primacy of scripture or the value we place on the Gospel narrative. At one point in your response you also claim that we possess “uneasiness with the actual Christian message,” but I ask in return: how do you know this? Like your other assumptions, this one rings false. One read-through of our belief statement would have affirmed that. Our concerns lie with the expression of the Christian message—not the message itself—specifically where it intersects with interfaith work. (Read a few of our past posts on FLP where we try to articulate our perspectives on this very topic. Feel free to comment.)

Then, onto this charge: “Your view isn’t the least bit “Evangelical” unless we change the definition of that word.” I both agree and disagree with this. First, I must admit that you caught me with my trousers down—if you read my bio on FLP, you’ll see plainly that I am a member of the Episcopal Church, and even seeking possible ordination there. The ECUSA is quite obviously a mainline denomination. So… am I lying when I call myself an evangelical? By the Wikipedia definition you provided, then yes, perhaps I am. I’ve been down that road before during my upbringing as a Baptist, and did not like my time there. Certain beliefs I hold do fall firmly within the Christian Liberalism that you attribute of me (I do in fact enjoy Tillich). But I would take a look back at the belief statement above. Clearly, I’m not some sort of sympathetic-to-the-Jesus-Seminar kind of person who sees the gospel as merely a beautiful story of death and rebirth; I do take a reasoned approach to my faith, but I don’t flirt outside the bounds of orthodoxy. The first comment in your response’s stream mentioned detecting more than a hint of Emergent Christianity in my (and Greg’s) views. I’d say that such an assessment is fair—to a point. But does that mean we aren’t evangelical?

I believe that “evangelical” shouldn’t have to mean an individual who fits into Bebbington’s four perimeters as mentioned in the Wikipedia article. In the same article from which you pulled, one can find the etymology of the word, which comes from the Greek “evangelion,” meaning “good news.” Thus, an evangelical is one who proclaims the “good news.” Not too tough (and I know you knew that). In this way, Greg and I fit the description, and this is how we have thought of ourselves. I’ll admit we may employ the term rather loosely. From your comments, I see that Greg and I should probably do better to define this.

If we don’t seem to be typical evangelicals, then I would say Greg and I are doing our job well. Interfaith cooperation is not something currently on the wider evangelical radar, and we’re trying to change that. (Though I would note it is gaining traction within the evangelical community.) But again, you don’t think there is anything novel or new about what we do. In regard to the Million Meals for Haiti event, you said:

Do I need “e[m]pathy and understanding” to think to myself, “huh! The people in Haiti who have been decimated for more than a year by the aftermath of a natural disaster probably need something to eat!” Or do I just need the raw facts? I mean: even the Southern Baptist Convention can mobilize for the Red Cross (and does so) without checking anyone’s baptism certificates. Is that really a wild leap forward for “interfaith dialog”, or does it turn out that you guys just found out that this happens in real life all the time, and that it happens mostly when people can agree on really gigantic incidents of suffering? The problem is not seeing the gigantic incidents of suffering: everyone can see those, and no one with a Western values system will tell you that humanitarian aid is uncalled for. The problem is that you guys think that this is new, and an innovation, and a neoteric way to do society – and that it’s the most important thing you can be concerned about.

What you fail to acknowledge (or perhaps fail to value) is that this approach to interfaith cooperation—one that revolves around service—doesn’t just affect those who need the aid, but also affects those serving. By mobilizing both the religious and non-religious, we interact face-to-face with those who would never set foot inside a church. You can’t directly represent Christ to those who are in the pews if they’re sitting in a synagogue. Or a mosque. Or a temple. But you can show your faith while packing meals together and sharing stories about what motivates you to serve. We discuss the transformative power of service all the time in the church, but I challenge you to think of it in terms of interfaith cooperation. True, it’s not a new idea.  The idea of meeting people where they are, of finding common ground, of sharing our lives and the basis for our faith, is as old as the Gospel itself.

I know that we’re operating on different wavelengths with this one, and we can certainly discuss it more. The “so what?” question is certainly important, and I feel I’m probably not giving you a satisfactory answer. Yet, for time’s sake, I will move on, as we can talk more about it when we have the opportunity to address it by itself.

Whew. I know this has dragged on for far too long, so I will end here with these two paragraphs:

If that further offends you, so be it. But in that, I offer you the chance to repent of your mistakes. The real message of Jesus is that when we turn away from what God has actually said to what seems right in our own eyes, we can repent if we believe that Christ died for our sins and was raised to new life to prove his work was worthy.

This is your chance to repent, if you believe. You can repent of abusing facts to advocate for social ends; you can repent of neglecting evangelism for the sake of making more friends; you can repent of denigrating the authority of the Bible; you can repent of making Jesus into merely a good example.

I feel no compunction to “repent of my mistakes,” for I genuinely do not believe I have made any. I have not, as you claim, turned away from “what God has actually said to what seems right in our own eyes.” I have not abused facts “to advocate for social ends.” We’re not “neglecting evangelism for the sake of making more friends”—clearly we’re not making any over here, for one—but hope that through leading by example in service and in our community, we can be the “salt and light” that Jesus himself compels us to be. I have in no way made Jesus “merely a good example”—a reread of the second bullet point in FLP’s belief statement should tell you that.

Behind your words lies an assumed superiority, an assumed “rightness,” that I do not agree with. I’ll admit I think it comes across as self-righteous in much the same way that the end of your “Open letter to Chris Stedman” did. You say that I am in the wrong, but all you have done in your response (excepting perhaps those criticisms you made regarding the tone and points of contention in our letter) is attack your own construction of what you assume Greg and I must believe. Your cadre of commenters has similarly attacked us based on these misrepresentations of our views. You raise some very valid points, but because they come couched in cynicism they are sometimes hard to tease out. I don’t mind that you critique my beliefs, I just ask that you actually critique my beliefs, not your beliefs about them. If you didn’t enjoy it when we did it to you (which I apologized for, as we sincerely did not mean to do so), then I ask you not do it in return.

It seems we differ in our theological stances; however, because I believe that you reached your view of your faith through careful study and consideration, I don’t call for you to repent. I can see how you believe the things you do and respect that fact despite our differences, and I ask that you extend me the same courtesy. Because again, Greg and I are trying to reach people for Christ, and have been presented with a terrific avenue for doing so. We do not stand opposite you. At our most basic, we’re just trying to coordinate service projects, demonstrate Christ’s love, and promote religious literacy and understanding.

There is no such thing as an airtight response, especially in this arena, and in order to address everything in your letter I would have had to take it almost line-by-line. It’s clear that you and I disagree on a number of accounts, but I hope I at least gave you a better sense of my stances and ideas (and those of Greg as well). Greg and I do not want to be seen as misguided for our positions on evangelism and interfaith cooperation. Instead, we want others to see where we are coming from, to see that we have reached this point out of a reasonable assessment of our faith and our world, and know that not everyone will see things the way that we do. As you acknowledge, it is easy to drop into caricature when critiquing someone else, and it is also easy to make incorrect assumptions from these mischaracterizations. I hope I have cleared up some of your questions, and apologize for any caricatures we would have constructed of you.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, Greg and I are Christ followers first and foremost—albeit Christ followers who see a real benefit and need in working together with people of other faiths. Interfaith relationships will continue to remain a reality and a challenge—indeed, their necessity will only grow as the world continues to shrink. The movement toward building bridges of cooperation has begun, and either Christians will play a productive role in it or they won’t. Greg and I hope they will. The discussion we are interested in having at FLP is one that seeks to examine the role that evangelism plays within interfaith cooperation, and it is there that you will find answers to your more specific questions about what we feel this looks like. Some people may not see any value in this, and we understand that.

We welcome voices to this discussion, even dissenting ones, and would love to have your participation and that of your readers as well.


-Cameron Nations.

Service: Breaking Barriers

Screenshot from President Obama's call to interfaith service

This piece was originally posted on the Interfaith Youth Core website as a response to the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.  View the original entry here: http://www.ifyc.org/content/service-breaking-barriers.

Today, the President issued a challenge to pursue interfaith service and cooperation on our campuses. We are asked to think and dream: What if we all came together by the tens, hundreds, or thousands to fight poverty, stop hunger, or speak out on behalf of the marginalized? What if our colleges and universities raised leaders with a passion for interfaith cooperation?

In a time where, all too frequently, religion means difference and difference means conflict, this call to action is as timely as ever. And what better arena for response than the college campus? It is an experiment of cultures and traditions, perspectives and experiences – a focused reflection of broader America.

From my home at the University of Illinois, I have seen the power of interfaith service. I found it in the effort of 5,119 volunteers from Champaign-Urbana, IL who prepared 1,012,640 meals for people of Haiti last year through cooperative service in the wake of the earthquake catastrophe. I also found it in the hearts of the young leaders who were dedicated to creating this event, which we called “One Million Meals for Haiti,” and who continue today to inspire service learning on our campus.

We are Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Humanist, and Protestant, joining with Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh. And when we serve together, we are free. Not free of our differences, but free from the barriers we had created from our differences.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of freedom over 40 years ago, he advanced a notion that continues today. It continues in the lives of those who live in service, and it is a testament to the power of helping others. This is because freedom and service can be one in the same. When we serve together, we are breaking the barriers that drive us apart; we are drowning out the voices of intolerance that would rather destroy than construct.

As an Evangelical Christian, I believe in freedom. And I believe in freedom not just to preserve the ability of choice, but because I desire to live in a country that fosters understanding – understanding that is only achieved through breaking down the barriers that we have constructed out of our differences.
President Obama suggests that we are a nation that affirms the sort of cooperation and service that achieves understanding. As a student at the University of Illinois, as an American, and as a Christian, I am proud of this call to come together.

I am reminded of the words of President Washington, that we are a country “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that those who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

This is interfaith cooperation: that we may destroy the barriers of our differences and find good citizenship in serving together.

More Dispatches from Abroad: Why Interfaith in America Matters

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the Three Faiths Forum [link], I’m studying in York, England this semester on an exchange program through the University of Illinois. I’ve loved my time here: the history, the people, the pubs, and, yes… even the food.

Upon arriving in the UK, I expected to meet loads of Brits and immerse myself in British culture—and to a large extent, I have done just that. Yet much to my surprise I have met and befriended nearly as many international students as I have homegrown English ones, the likes of which come from places as far-flung as Italy, Turkey, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, India, Switzerland, and Sweden.

Being thrust into a social group comprised of so many nationalities and identities made me scramble to position myself as an American within this expanded cultural context. What did people know of America? What did I know of their countries? They all asked me questions, they all seemed curious. What did I stand for in their eyes? There had to be  more to me than someone who doesn’t mean “soccer” when they say “football,” right?

In my flat, there are also four other American students, as well as about ten or so others from the UK and EU. Among these is a Somali-born Muslim girl around my same age who lived for a number of years in Holland. The first few days I arrived, she proved a welcome companion: she went with me on my first trip to the grocery store, helped me get adjusted to my life in a new place, and extended warmth and hospitality to me when I could have felt alone and far from home. We got along well.

Thus I was surprised when, one day, she told me in passing that she had been worried when she found out that so many American students were moving in. She said she didn’t know how we would react to her or treat her as a Somali Muslim. Though she continued on with the conversation, I stopped her there. “Wait,” I said, “why were you worried?”

She responded by saying that she didn’t think Americans liked Muslims. She hadn’t said it sarcastically; her words were tempered with honesty. “But you’re all right,” she said with a smile.

Though the conversation changed course after that, I couldn’t get her words out of my head. It bothered me that she viewed my country as prejudiced and intolerant when I had always taken pride in its idyllic virtues of freedom and justice for all. Were these virtues illusory? As a white male from an upper-middle class family in the suburbs of Chicago, I suppose it would be easy for me to see the freedom America grants. I have known privilege.

Whether a true title or not, the United States does in fact carry the label of being predominantly Christian. In some sense, what happens there does not just come across as political, but carries with it a religious tone. Other countries notice when our president says “God bless America,” and remember it well when we declare war or make policy decisions. As Christians, we must consider this. America is a big stage with a broad influence—what we do matters, what we say matters, and, more importantly, both of these things come back to reflect our faith.

Could I fault my flat mate for her less-than-positive perceptions of the United States? I thought back to last year, when Terry Jones, a Florida pastor, threatened to host a “Burn the Koran” day. His statements garnered international attention, despite the fact that back in the US he pastors a church of only 50 people. If not for his ridiculous anti-Islamic antics, he would be known by nearly no one. Yet I’m sure that his actions played heavily into my flat mate’s worries about having Americans living down the hall. And now, the protests in Orange County, the Radicalization Hearings in Washington—it’s hard not to see where she’s coming from.

Indeed, I can’t help but feel similarly about other countries that persecute Christians. Yet they don’t proclaim liberty, justice, or freedom in the same way America does. And, as someone contemplating a vocation in the church, I can’t help but think that the US should set an example for religious tolerance and cooperation, not show itself to be a less-violent version of the same prejudiced principles.

We can stand as a beacon of peace, or we can come across as the world’s wealthiest hypocrites.

While we as American Christians engage with those of other faiths in a peaceful, loving, and proactive way, we not only uphold the virtues America is said to possess, but we also demonstrate Christ’s love. Greg and I often mention Christ’s commendation “Blessed are the peacemakers” and his exhortation to love our neighbors as well as our enemies. Remember that we live in a big world, and that these virtues bear immense significance within it. How can we be better peacemakers? How can we better love our neighbors? How can we make stories of compassion and cooperation louder than stories of bigotry and strife? Join us; help answer these pressing questions.

Serving Together

This piece was originally published by the Interfaith Youth Core at http://www.ifyc.org/content/serving-together.  While I always intended to re-post it on this site eventually, I think that it is a particularly timely piece given current events.

Whether we are facing the voices of intolerance or problems with health care accessibility, interfaith work has taught me that relationships are the solution to the problems our world faces.

When offensive images depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad appeared on my campus late last spring as part of one group’s protest of censorship and religious extremism, I started to think about the relationships I had with Muslims in my community. After considering those relationships, I understood these images’ significance with a distinctly different perspective than I would have just a few years ago. I realized that the images were not offensive to a faceless and distant religious community, but to my friends.

This empathy is possible because of interfaith relationships. One of those relationships is my friendship with Irfan. Three years ago I started volunteering with the Champaign County Christian Health Center (which we call the “Christian clinic”), providing free medical care to uninsured people in Champaign County. As I soon learned, even the well-run operation at the Christian clinic couldn’t keep up with the needs of our community, and a group from the nearby mosque led by Irfan Ahmad stepped up to help.

As Irfan grew the Avicenna Community Health Center – which is staffed by volunteer medical professionals and students – into a functional weekend clinic, he also built a bridge with the Christian clinic, and the two organizations have since been sharing a facility and together pursuing a goal of seven-days-a-week free healthcare for uninsured people.

Irfan inspires me. In a conversation last spring while shooting a video about the clinics (including a third clinic at the same site, which has recently closed), he explained that all healing is from God, and that the physician is the conduit through which God provides healing.

As a Christian who believes that God inspires and empowers his people to help others, Irfan’s insight reminds me why I am a medical student working on a doctorate in biomedical engineering and pursuing a career fighting global health challenges. He also reminds me that interfaith collaboration can often accomplish more than a single religious community can on its own.

This is what interfaith work means to me: relationships based on common action for the good of others, relationships that easily destroy the barriers built by ignorance and bigotry, and relationships that inspire me as an evangelical Christian to demonstrate the compassion of Christ in response to the needs of the world around me.

To Bigotry, No Sanction

Image from the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm006.html)

A video hit the web like a brick last week: Orange County residents rallying outside of a Muslim fundraising dinner, shouting “go home,” “why don’t you go home and beat your wife?” and “Muhammad was a pervert.”  (The actual video has been removed from YouTube on copyright claims, but here’s an informative blog entry with a screen shot)

Equally astounding are the public officials shown speaking at events related to the protests – encouraging the voices of intolerance, billing it as American patriotism.

And while there are claims that some of the speeches were taken out of context, it doesn’t detract from the severity of this demonstration.  This is a demonstration of hate.

At one point in the video, a demonstrator yells: “never forget 9/11!”

Yet the faith of the Muslim Americans I know is no more similar to the faith of Islamic extremists than my faith is to that of Eric Rudolph or to other terrorists who have killed in the name of the God of the Bible.  And consider the children who are subject to the jeering–children who are American, who have never known another home but Orange County, California, USA, and who were now being called terrorists by their neighbors.

On the other side of the country, we watch as Peter King prepares to stage “radicalization hearings” on Capitol Hill, putting an entire faith community on trial.

Last Saturday, I attended a dinner hosted by Muslim Americans in my community to talk about love for God and love for the neighbor.  Tomorrow, I will go to work in a lab with Muslim Americans – a lab where we are investigating health technologies to benefit people all over the world.  I will attend class with Muslim American medical students who are studying hard in order to heal, not destroy.  And when I drive home, I will pass a mosque that is one of the strongest voices in Champaign-Urbana for helping those in need and unifying our community.

Yet on Capitol Hill, they are being investigated for terror.

So what is the Christian church to do?  What is our response?

We follow a God who not only said “love you neighbor” but also “love your enemies“.  Yet so many have chosen to take hate for the enemy and project it on to their neighbor.  Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, yet so many have turned in fear on those who would build dialogue and peace.

I am reminded of the words of President George Washington to Moses Seixas, warden of the Jewish synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (actually echoing Seixas’ words from an earlier letter):

For happily, the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

As my Muslim friends reminded me at last Saturday night’s dinner, it is the love of one’s neighbor – as Jesus preached – that compels us to make the words of Washington a reality more than 200 years later.

How will you respond?